YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Hungary's 50-year grudge

October 29, 2006|Christopher Condon | CHRISTOPHER CONDON is the Budapest correspondent for the Financial Times.

FIFTY YEARS AGO this Saturday, Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest and crushed a Hungarian rebellion against Stalinist rule. The occupying army and its domestic quislings killed as many as 3,000 Hungarians, sent more than 200,000 fleeing into exile and extinguished a movement that, for two exhilarating weeks, had seemed poised to tip the balance of the Cold War decisively against Moscow.

Today the tragic ending seems inevitable, except to Hungarians. Half a century later, many still complain bitterly that the United States abandoned them in their darkest hour after inciting them to revolt. With the opening of previously unavailable archives in Washington, Moscow and Budapest, damning new light is being shed on U.S. inaction.

Two new books written by 1956 emigres detail how the anti-communist bark of the Eisenhower administration was much stronger than its bite. "Twelve Days" by Victor Sebestyen and "Failed Illusions" by Charles Gati each show how election-year propaganda in the U.S. was more important than lifting a finger to assist those it inspired.

In 1952, backed by a fiercely anti-communist Republican right, Dwight Eisenhower campaigned against President Truman's policy of containment with promises of "rollback" and "liberation" for Eastern Europe. Averell Harriman, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, warned soon-to-be Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during a pre-election television appearance, "Foster, if you follow this policy, you are going to have the deaths of some brave people on your conscience."

Once in office, though, Eisenhower accepted the Eastern Europe status quo. This may have been prudent, but he never changed the rhetoric to match. After the death of Josef Stalin in March 1953, Washington set out on the long path to detente, even while maintaining a public face of shrill anti-communism.

Eastern Europeans, eagerly listening for signs of hope, were unaware of the disconnect. Republican firebrands at home were also out of the loop. At a July 1956 National Security Council meeting, Gati and Sebestyen point out, Vice President Richard Nixon expressed concern that the softer-on-communism reality might leak out: "I hope everybody, from those present here all the way down the line, will keep their mouths shut on this subject."

More chilling for Hungarians, at the same meeting, less than four months before tanks rolled through Budapest, Nixon callously suggested that if an Eastern European country attempted a rebellion and "the Soviet iron fist were to come down hard," the U.S. would win a public relations victory. Washington's main communications channel to the Eastern bloc was Radio Free Europe, or RFE, established by the CIA to broadcast reliable news and American propaganda. Its role in the 1956 revolt has been much debated, with many accusing RFE of inciting the rebellion.

Ross Johnson, a former RFE staff historian and now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, has reviewed translations of Hungarian-language programming in the months leading up to the uprising. "I'm quite confident that the broadcasts from the spring and summer of 1956 were gradualist" when it came to liberation, he said. There was never, he says, an explicit call to arms.

Instead, in Operation Red Sox/Red Cap, the CIA air-dropped leaflets into Hungary bearing messages such as, "The regime is weaker than you think" and urged Hungarians through RFE broadcasts to make incremental demands. Said Janos Rainer, director of Hungary's 1956 Institute: "Hungarians clearly got the impression that, in the event of a rebellion, the U.S. would support them effectively."

Can RFE be blamed for those perceptions, or were Hungarians simply hearing what they wanted to hear? RFE's message was often exaggerated by word of mouth, or simply confused with other broadcasts. Many Hungarians insist to this day that RFE promised that U.S. paratroopers were on their way. No such promise was ever made. A more accurate charge is that the White House, distracted by the unfolding Suez Canal crisis and the Nov. 6 presidential election, did nothing to prevent the Soviet bloodbath. Indeed, bent on reassuring Moscow that the U.S. would not respond militarily, Eisenhower avoided even the mildest of diplomatic efforts. Henry Kissinger later slammed Ike for behaving like a helpless spectator. "There were no diplomatic notes," he wrote in his 1994 book, "Diplomacy." "No pressure, no offers to mediate. Nothing."

Gati takes the U.S. to task for its failure to back Imre Nagy, a popular reform-minded communist around whom the revolutionaries rallied. In Washington, because of poor intelligence, Nagy was unknown. RFE, whose Hungarian section was dominated by right-wing Hungarian emigres, bitterly attacked Nagy as a communist traitor. Here, Gati argues, the U.S. failed to reach for small but attainable gains -- a turn away from hard-line Stalinism and a moderate distancing from Moscow.

Los Angeles Times Articles